Members of the wonderful National Garden Scheme are generously opening their garden gates for charity this summer, just when we need them most. The sheer joy of a visit to see some of Britain’s private gardens is going to bring a lot of happiness to many. The variety of gardens you can visit range from secret city rooftops to cottage and manor house gardens. The season starts for us on Sunday 23 May (2 – 5 pm) with a visit to one of Berkshire’s finest.
The Old Rectory, Lower Basildon
The first time I saw The Old Rectory garden was in a deep mid-winter. I was in my early twenties when weekends were regularly filled with friends’ weddings. At the time I was working for a book publisher in Mayfair and my friend and colleague Kate was marrying a Berkshire horse trainer at St Bartholomews Church next to The Old Rectory in Lower Basildon.
It had snowed heavily the night before and I will always remember the drive from London down the lane to the church which had turned into a magical, icy white tunnel. Snow-laden branches were almost touching either side of the car as I passed. It was the prettiest of weddings made prettier by the snow in a very special location.
The Old Rectory garden in 2021
Eventually, we moved out of London to Reading and when some years later friends Alison and Charlie Laing bought The Old Rectory in 2014, I knew the exact spot from where Kate’s wedding had been all those years before.
You can understand why writers such as Jerome K Jerome have written about this stretch of the Thames. There is something completely magical about how the garden sits in the landscape. The way the river bends and the meadows rise up to tree-covered Chiltern hills behind is more than a little captivating.
Remodelling The Old Rectory garden
The remodelling of the 2-acre garden has been a labour of love for Alison and Charlie since they bought the Georgian rectory in 2014. Alison says, “There were already many wonderful features such as an old Mulberry tree, a crinkle crankle wall, and pond that had previously been a swimming pool. However, there were a few hedges and overgrown fruit trees which blocked the view of the wall and of the area that we wanted to become a vegetable and cutting garden.”
Apple tree avenue
The Laings asked Rachel Rendell of Sunningwell Fruit to help retrain old fruit trees as well as establishing new ones. Rachel has helped create the ‘apple tree avenue’ of espaliered trees by the back door. The trees are underplanted with tulips which are a legacy from the previous owners. New mixed apple and plum trees have been planted along the drive.
Garden design at The Old Rectory
Alison and Charlie were confident about how the space in the garden could be designed to improve the layout but took advice from Ana Mari Bull Landscape to help with the creation of the rose and peony beds, the white border and long herbaceous border.
The planting scheme was designed predominently with blue, white, and purple flowers. Later in the summer, hot pinks and oranges appear in the garden. Alison grows calendula, nicotania, sweetpeas and sunflowers from seed, mixing them companionably in the vegetable garden.
And this year for the first time, the cutting garden will include some colourful sculptural dahlias. Divine pink climbing roses entwine with a wysteria framing a semi-circular stone portico over the front door.
The White Border
Drifts of white Annabel Hydrangea blooms form an effervescent structure in the White Border during the summer while White First Early Peonies are aptly the first to appear in the Peony and Rose border.
The garden has several perennial gems which Alison successfully divides each spring and plants in various borders. I was curious as to how cautious you need to be when dividing Agapanthus and Alison said, “Much to Charlie’s disgust I find a sharp kitchen knife is the best way to divide the roots, but it works!”
Plants that have meaning
There are a few plants which hold particular meaning for Alison; in fact they are known as her ‘sentimental plants’. Particularly special are a silver maple tree that their children gave them for their 25th wedding anniversary, a yellow tree peony given to Alison by her father and also a rosemary which is a third generation plant from her Aunt Rosemary’s garden in Edinburgh.
Cedar of Lebanon tree
This a the view from the White Border to a huge Cedar of Lebanon tree. The tree is home to Egyptian Geese, who set their young free by dropping them from the branches of the tree! Luckily they do survive and make it quickly into the pond nearby.
Maintaining the garden
The new design of the garden certainly helps with maintenance as Alison says: “The great thing about having the vegetable and cutting garden visible from the kitchen is that if I see some weeds, I can’t help but run out and remove them!” Due to the size of the garden Alison and Charlie are grateful to have the help of two gardeners to help keep things ticking over.
Alison and Charlie’s garden source book
The planting budget was managed with a mixture of pot plants, the majority of which came from Hortus Loci for the initial planting (opting for smaller litre sized pots where they could) along with homegrown from Sarah Raven seeds and a few bedding plants from BM Stores. Alison is also very fond of Hardys Cottage Plants in Hampshire.
Lighting in the garden was installed by Julian at Lighting Alfresco.
Art reflecting nature
Thank you so much Alison and Charlie for giving readers a preview of your beautiful garden. There are so many inspirational ideas at every turn.
The pictures I am sharing were taken over a couple of years and will hopefully give visitors to the garden a snapshot of how the planting evolves from Spring through to Summer.
Thank you so much for reading. Please don’t forget to put Sunday 23 May 2021 from 2 – 5 pm in your diary for a visit to the gardens at The Old Rectory, Church Lane, Lower Basildon, Berkshire, RG8 9NH.
The £6 National Garden Scheme entrance fee can be paid on the gate which also gives entrance to Church Farm House garden nearby. Children go free and there will be an Old Rectory Garden quiz for them that involves the famous Egyptian geese!
Tea and cakes will be served in aid of other charities by friends of St Bartholomew Church adjacent to the Rectory.
With best wishes,